Monday, May 31, 2010

Camping at Lake Winfield Scott

Lake Winfield Scott is located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains and one of the main draws for us was its location near a pristine mountain lake. Though the campground itself wasn't our favorite, as far as amenities were concerned (no electric, cold showers in not the best condition), and we ended up leaving a day early because of forecasted thunderstorms, the scenery and fishing did not disappoint. We had a lovely time with our friends the Romicks and were thrilled that Oma & Opa were able to come up and spend the day with us before the weather got yucky.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I went to my Grandfather's funeral with dirt under my fingernails...

It wasn't intentional, by any means, let me just make that clear. It was just that my inheritance from him happened to be a bowl full of okra seeds, soaked and ready for planting and boxes of tomato and pepper seedlings. He really wanted those seedlings transplanted. In fact, the day before he died, the kids and I were over at my Mother's transplanting his baby pepper plants. He was just too sick and in pain to do it, but that's about all he talked about.

My Grandpa was a traveler. He joined the Navy when he was a young man, and lived on and fought off a P.T. boat during WWII. After his enlistment, he traveled all over the country working construction jobs and doing his very best to provide for his family. He wasn't home much, but when he was, he would grow plants and take care of a garden. There's one story in particular that my Mom likes to tell: Grandpa was home for a bit, laid off from work, and they didn't have much money at all to live off of. He would go to the elementary school every day after school let out and dig through the dumpster for the individual size milk cartons. He would save whatever milk was left in them and Grandma would boil it at home to sanitize it. They would use it for cooking and baking. Grandpa took the milk cartons and planted tomato seedlings in them, and they would sell the seedlings on the side of the road to make some extra money.

As a child growing up, I always knew where to find my Grandpa Harry...either outside in his garden or in his basement, fixing something, making something or growing something. On Sunday afternoons after church I would follow him out into the back yard where we'd find some sort of garden chore that needed doing. I don't remember how many times Grandma or Mom reprimanded us for doing "dirty jobs" in our best was a lot, though. He had a corner of his basement that was dedicated to his gardening, with seeds breaking through the dirt in their trays, and seedlings under the fluorescent grow lights ready to go out in the garden or to a friend. I could stand in his little gardening area and smell the musty aroma of damp earth, with green growing things all around me. It felt so magical.

Out in his backyard he had a magic tree too. Every spring it would bloom in three different colors, and in the summer it had three different kinds of fruit on it. I was always in awe of that tree, and in my Grandpa's ability to grow such an amazing thing. Before he died, he passed along to me the knowledge he possessed about grafting different types of trees & plants. It's funny to me that even though I know the "how" behind it now, I don't find it any less magical.

Grandpa came to live with my Mom & Dad in the winter. They didn't have a lot of area for a garden, but that didn't stop him from poring through his seed catalogues and planning his garden anyhow. When springtime came he convinced Mom to purchase some seeds for him online; bell peppers, tomatoes, okra, and a new hybrid of jalapeno that he was so excited about..."all the flavor, none of the heat," the description read. Grandpa loved his peppers. As a child, there were many times I went running into the house coughing and sputtering after Grandpa handed me a pepper of some sort saying: "here, try a bite of this." Grandma would scold him for traumatizing me, but I don't think it bothered me as much as she must have thought. Now that I'm grown...I love hot peppers too.

The seed packets came in and Grandpa planted every seed...way more plants than they would have room for in the garden in the back. He had a plan though. "What if the church would let us put in a garden in that field in front of the parsonage?" he asked my Mom one day. "We could give the vegetables we grow to the food pantry." Mom figured the least she could do was ask, and so she did. We all thought it would take time to get it approved. "Maybe next year..." I remember thinking.

In the meantime, Grandpa's seeds were sprouting. As soon as their leaves come out, he started taking them out into the sun for a few hours every day. He wasn't getting around very well, so you could tell how important his seedlings were to him that he would put so much effort into making sure they got just the right amount of water, and just the right amount of sunlight. They were his babies. When he was hospitalized, he asked about them every day, and gave very detailed instructions of how to take care of them. Mom even re-potted one of his hybrid jalapeƱos to take to the hospital so he could make sure they were growing well, to reassure him.

He came from the hospital under hospice care, so we all knew there wouldn't be much time left with him. The church board of trustees surprised us with a very quick response in approval of the garden project. The ground was prepared and a groundbreaking day was chosen for the Sunday after he came home. He was too weak to participate but we hoped to at least get him into the car and to the garden where he could watch. His peppers and tomatoes still needed to be transplanted, though, and with Mom busy taking care of him, that very privileged responsibility fell to me. After we transplanted the peppers into their new pots Thursday evening, we took them into his room to get his approval. He ran his fingers over the plants very gently, just barely caressing the tender leaves. Then he looked at me and, between ragged breaths, began to tell me to be careful about leaving them in the sun too long right after they were transplanted. They had to be out for the right amount of time, at just the right time of day. "Those tomatoes need to be transplanted too, don't forget," he said. I told him I would be back the next day to take care of them. I didn't get to hug him before we left...he was just in too much pain to be touched. But I told him I loved him & we'd see him tomorrow.

That night he took a turn for the worse, and by the next morning he was gone.

Several days went by in a fog, and then in the rush of funeral arrangements and out-of-town family. The day of his funeral, I found myself back at my parents' house dropping off food between the visitation and the service. As I passed by the windows looking out onto the back porch, I caught glimpse of the tomato seedlings, now very tightly crammed together in their seedling box. "I have some time before the service," I thought to myself. So on the day of his funeral, there I was in my best Sunday clothes, out on the back porch, planting okra seeds and transplanting tomato seedlings...

....and later, at his service, when I looked down in sorrow with tears in my eyes, I saw that I still had dirt under my fingernails.

I think Grandpa would have been OK with that.

"We come from the earth, we return to the earth, and in between we garden."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dealing with Trials

"In this world you will have tribulation..."

We're not promised an easy time of it, as Christians or otherwise. Every religious scripture worldwide confirms the universality of suffering. Certainly many trials come from poor decisions and mistakes, but it has never escaped notice that the innocent and those who try the hardest to live righteously and make good decisions often experience the worst of it. How is it that the lifelong alcoholic can live in blissful oblivion, while his family suffers, and complete strangers to him are devastated by the results of his drunken driving? How is that fair? Why are there people who smoke, drink, and eat junk for food and never experience anything other than a bit of high blood pressure; while a 28 year old mother of two, who never smoked, drank to excess, or ate much junk food at all, ends up with stage-4 cancer? The questions are endless, and confounding. There is no simple answer. What I know for sure is that difficult times come to everyone, and when they do, we are all tempted like Job, to sit and question God and wonder if we did something to deserve our condition. It is a pointless position...totally futile. You could sit and ponder these questions for an entire lifetime and not end up with a single sufficient answer, and your life will have been wasted.

So what attitude should we take in the midst of the inevitable trials of life?

"...but be courageous, for I have overcome the world" (John 16:33)

When faced with trials, people seem to have one of two reactions: Despair, or Hope. The above passage is translated several ways: "be courageous, take heart, be of good cheer, have confidence." A "cheerful" attitude has been, at times, a bit much for me to muster, I must admit. "Have confidence," has got to be my favorite. I don't see many people "cheerfully" enduring their job loss, foreclosed homes, or deaths of loved ones, but I have seen many who can hold their head high during times of adversity. There is something substantial about knowing that Jesus suffered as we all do, and through his suffering has shown us the way to redemption and eternal life. We can have confidence that, if he can overcome the world, then he can also help us overcome whatever obstacle we are facing. The Greek word PROSDECHOMAI has become one of my favorites.

It carries the connotation of expectant waiting for the fulfillment of promises made. It is the attitude that has carried me through many difficult days, and I have to say that when I waited expectantly in the midst of difficult circumstances, God ALWAYS showed up in the most amazing ways:

It was Christmas time in Minot, ND. The thermostat hadn't crept above 0 degrees for two months. My hair had fallen out as a result of the Chemo treatments and though my tumors had begun to dwindle in size, the Doctors still weren't convinced that I would survive. Josh's First Sergeant, the man whose job it was to support and encourage his troops in difficult situations, had taken the position that I wasn't really that sick and that we were just trying to "milk the system." He had been putting pressure on Josh to make me drive myself to my Chemo treatments so that he could be at work, and had repeatedly refused our requests for financial assistance. My Mother had been with us for a few months to help, but had left abruptly because of her difficulty handling the stressful situation (for which we could not blame her), leaving us no choice but to pay for full-time day care for the children. It was a financial obligation we could not afford, but could not do without. I assure you, we felt "hard pressed on every side." (2 Cor 4:8)

Imagine my surprise, then, when Josh's First Sergeant showed up on our doorstep one evening the week before Christmas, dressed as Santa, bearing presents from complete strangers, a Turkey, a Christmas Tree with decorations... AND finally, at long last, a paper bearing his recommendation of us to Air Force Aid! (probably requested by the Squadron Commander) I could tell by his demeanor that this was totally against his will. He had absolutely NO desire to be carrying out this little errand. The disdain was plain to see on his face, but it carried no weight for me. My children were thrilled! They had no clue that there was a Scrooge underneath the costume, they just saw Santa and presents. In my hand I held his recommendation to Air Force Aid, an answer to prayer that had been months in the making. I could barely keep the tears from my eyes, and I'm sure he must have been wondering why. He could have had no clue that God had made his presence known, at that very moment, using HIM...the LEAST likely candidate we would ever have thought possible.

It is only one example of many, many ways God made his presence known to us during one of the most difficult times we have ever been through as a family. I think it is easier to recognize his presence in even smaller ways with the added perspective of time. The passage of time has also helped me to see the many ways this trying situation made us better as a family, and as individuals. It is something to say that you believe in God, but something else entirely to be able to say that you KNOW God. I started out, as we all do, with a childish belief in someone else's faith. I only knew what I was told, and though I held it to be true, it was not until I had need to lean upon this faith that God become real for me. I waited, I trusted, I hoped...and God showed up. He walked beside us in the midst of our suffering. Though those we expected to help us may have not been able to, for whatever reasons; God made his presence known through the kindness of strangers, the prayers of many, and his use of even unwilling emissaries of his love.

After living through an experience like that, it is not hard to awake every day feeling so blessed, and thankful for the fullness of our lives together. After living through something so difficult, the minor disturbances of daily life seem terribly insignificant. Even though we know that we will have more trials to live through, we are hopeful. We know that God will always show up for us.

"Happy are those who are strong in the Lord, who set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs, where pools of blessing collect after the rains! They will continue to grow stronger, and each of them will appear before God in Zion." Psalm 84:5-7